Wherever one stands on the issue of same-sex marriage, having the president of the United States endorse the concept is a major achievement for the gay rights movement. And it didn’t happen by accident.
The shift in the public’s attitudes toward gay marriage, and the subsequent alteration of the political landscape, is arguably the most significant we’ve seen in the last quarter-century. And among the people who are most responsible for this moment is Jonathan Rauch, a former columnist for National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.
As Pete noted yesterday, the talk about the evolution of President Obama’s stand on gay marriage tends to gloss over the fact that rather than a straight path to enlightenment, it has been a typical cynical politician’s approach to controversy. Since he supported it while running for the State Senate, opposed it while running for the Senate in 2004 and for the presidency in 2008 and now supports it again in 2012, we can see that his position was not principled but the product of careful analysis about the needs of the voters he was facing in each case. This is hardly shocking, but I suspect the president won’t be branded as a flip-flopper by his adoring fans in the mainstream press.
That’s significant not so much because it reveals the media’s bias on social issues but because it shows the different standard to which Mitt Romney has been subjected for his stands on social issues by some of the same outlets that are celebrating Obama’s statement today. Though Democratic strategists are currently attempting to paint Romney as a right-wing extremist, for most of the last year they and their allies in the press regularly lambasted Romney for being a serial flip-flopper. But in the wake of Obama’s politically motivated zigzag path to support for gay marriage, isn’t it time to acknowledge there is no difference between that and Romney’s equally tortured route to opposition to abortion?
Rudy Giuliani was on CBS News this morning cautioning Republicans to stay out of the gay marriage debate. It looks like he’s a bit late. Last night, the House passed a Republican-backed bill that would prevent the Justice Department from using taxpayer funds to oppose the Defense of Marriage Act, Politico reports:
With a 245-171 vote, the House voted to stop the Justice Department from using taxpayer funds to actively oppose DOMA — the Clinton-era law defining marriage as between a man and a woman that the Obama administration stopped enforcing in February 2011. …
Democrats immediately attacked Republicans for the vote.
“On an historic day and in the dark of night, House Republicans have voted to tie the hands of the Obama administration with respect to their efforts to end discrimination against America’s families,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said in a statement. “House Republicans continue to plant their feet firmly on the wrong side of history.”
The evolution, it appears, is now complete. Barack Obama – who once supported same-sex marriages (when he ran for state senator in Illinois in 1996), then opposed them (when he ran for Senate in 2004 against Alan Keyes), and then was unsure what he thought (as president) – told ABC’s Robin Roberts, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” The president added that this is a personal position and he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.
I have several thoughts on this development, beginning with the wisdom of the timing. The president announced his position one day after voters in North Carolina voted to support adding an amendment on marriage to its constitution, banning same-sex marriage. As a friend pointed out to me, the president was shrewd to wait until after yesterday’s vote, which allows him to look like he is willing to buck public opinion rather than looking like his endorsement carried no weight in the vote.
Proponents of gay marriage will celebrate today’s statement by President Obama in which he put himself on the side of changing the traditional definition of marriage as a courageous stand that marks a turning point in the nation’s attitudes on the issue. But as with the case of his positions on human rights crises in Libya and Syria, the president was “leading from behind” as he is just the latest major figure in his party to jump on the gay marriage bandwagon. There is no question that support for greater acceptance of gays and even a willingness to contemplate some form of civil unions or gay marriage is widespread and not limited to the political left. Changing attitudes on the part of large sectors of the public who have more of a libertarian than a traditional approach have rendered Obama’s position more a function of the center than the margins.
The decision also reflects a belief among Democratic strategists that even the most divisive social issues work in their favor, because any debate on abortion, contraception or gay rights allows them to paint the entire GOP as intolerant. Just as they were able to turn a discussion about the way ObamaCare attacked the religious freedom of the Catholic Church into one about a bogus war on women, they may now think a gay marriage initiative will work the same way in convincing the people who voted for Obama in 2008 they must turn out to fend off the GOP this year. In making this statement in the middle of his re-election bid after years of dithering on the issue, the president is sending a signal he believes this is the sort of thing he needs to do to fire up his otherwise unenthusiastic base. Rather than a “profile in courage” moment, Obama’s gay marriage stand seems more like an attempt to rekindle the flagging passion of the “hope” and “change” fan base.
The Obama campaign finally weighed in on the gay marriage debate this week, criticizing a North Carolina referendum banning gay marriage and civil unions that passed overwhelmingly yesterday:
“The president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples,” Obama North Carolina campaign spokesman Cameron French said, in a Tuesday statement on the vote over Amendment 1.
“He believes the North Carolina measure singles out and discriminates against committed gay and lesbian couples, which is why he did not support it,” said French. “President Obama has long believed that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and legal protections as straight couples and is disappointed in the passage of this amendment. On a federal level, he has ended the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and extended key benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.”
Public Policy Polling finds wide support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in North Carolina, the last poll before voting opened today.
A final poll of likely North Carolina voters conducted over the weekend continues to give a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions an easy margin of victory in Tuesday’s election while the Democratic contest for governor is tightening.
The referendum holds a 16-point advantage, 55 percent in favor and 39 percent against, according to the Public Policy Polling survey, a left-leaning Raleigh-based firm. The numbers shifted little in the final week as big-names on either side of the debate – Rev. Billy Graham for and former President Bill Clinton against – made final pleas to persuade voters.
Ed Morrissey has an interesting column in This Week, arguing that Joe Biden’s gay marriage comments may have been a shrewd political calculation as opposed to a slipup during routine bloviation. I think he’s giving Biden too much credit, but there’s definitely a case to be made that this helps the Obama campaign in several ways:
Consider the coincidence of Education Secretary Arne Duncan offering a corroborating point of view the day after Biden’s statement. Brought to MSNBC’s ”Morning Joe” to discuss Teacher Appreciation Week, Duncan was greeted by TIME’s Mark Halperin with this “icebreaker” question: “Do you believe that same-sex men and women should be able to get legally married in the United States?” Despite the tortured syntax of the query and an objection to the question by a ”Morning Joe” panelist, Duncan gave an ironic “I do” in reply, pushing the issue even farther into the public consciousness, and giving Biden some much-needed political cover.
Nor do the coincidences end there. This comes just after the much-publicized departure of foreign policy adviser Richard Grenell from the Romney campaign. …
Even more likely, though, Biden’s gambit was an attempt to keep the media preoccupied with issues other than jobs and the economy. It’s also no coincidence that this eruption came just 48 hours after another disappointing jobs report.
The White House is still mopping up after Joe Biden’s comments on gay marriage yesterday. At today’s press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney batted down questions about whether President Obama has changed his stance on gay marriage, saying he had “no update on the president’s personal views.”
Meanwhile, David Axelrod sought to change the subject by highlighting the “very clear distinction” between Romney and Obama on the issue:
Though Axelrod sounded reluctant to discuss the issue again Monday — after tweeting about it Sunday— he quickly contrasted the Obama administration’s position on gay rights with Romney’s record.
The former Massachusetts governor “has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places,” Axelrod said, adding that Romney “believes that we need a constitutional amendment banning the right of gay couples to marry and would take us backward not forward. There’s a very clear distinction in this race.”
Vice President Biden kinda-sorta embraced gay marriage during an interview with David Gregory yesterday – which the administration promptly downplayed – and this morning Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out in favor of same-sex marriage on MSNBC (via Buzzfeed):
The Obama administration tiptoed even closer to supporting gay marriage today, with a second member of the Cabinet coming out flatly in support of treating same-sex couples the same as couples of opposite sexes.
TIME’s Mark Halperin asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today whether he believes “that same-sex men and women should be able to get legally married in the United States?”
“Yes, I do,” Duncan replied.
This CNN story seems a little too perfectly-timed, like it’s part of some sort of Mormon church rebranding campaign. The church’s image is still heavily associated with the 2008 Prop. 8 campaign in California, and even though many Republicans oppose gay marriage, it’s not helpful for the Mormons to be tied to such a politically-charged issue at a time when it’s about to be under a lot of election-season media scrutiny:
Though the church’s doctrine condemning homosexuality has not changed, and the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage, many say the church is subtly but unmistakably growing friendlier toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including voicing support for some gay rights.
Students at the church-owned Brigham Young University recently posted an “It Gets Better” video about the gay and lesbian community there, while a gay Mormon in San Francisco was selected last year for a church leadership position.
A new conference series on gay and lesbian Mormons…is seeing an uptick in popularity.
Church spokesman Michael Purdy would not comment on whether church members are changing their stance toward gay and lesbian issues but said in an e-mail message: “In the Church, we strive to follow Jesus Christ who showed immense love and compassion towards all of God’s children.”
Politico reports this morning on the internal shift within the Republican Party on the gay marriage opposition issue, which has been taking place quietly for the past few years. The change has mirrored polling numbers, which show that public opinion has moved sharply in favor of gay marriage since 2008. But it’s still noteworthy that the Republican leadership in Congress isn’t just being passive on this. It has even worked to kill amendments that oppose gay marriage:
Even more than that, Republican leadership has evolved, too. It has quietly worked behind the scenes to kill amendments that reaffirm opposition to same-sex unions, several sources told Politico.
It’s not like the GOP has become a bastion of progressiveness on gay rights, but there has been an evolution in the political approach — and an acknowledgment of a cultural shift in the country. Same-sex relationships are more prominent and accepted. There are more gay public figures — including politicians — and it’s likely that many Washington Republicans have gay friends and coworkers. Just as important — there’s also a libertarian streak of acceptance on people’s sexuality coursing through the House Republican Conference.
There’s been a trend this week of prominent conservative women writers warning about Rick Santorum’s out-of-mainstream social views. They’ve all touched on a similar concern: Santorum’s past comments on social issues are so extreme that they likely render him unelectable.
This is alarming enough on its own. But the increasingly vocal criticism from right-leaning female pundits also indicates another problem on the horizon for Santorum: can he rely on the conservative media, particularly the women, to have his back on social issues in a general election?
While running for governor in 2009, Chris Christie vowed, if elected, to veto any same-sex marriage bill that came to his desk. His support for civil unions but opposition to gay marriage did not hold him back in his decisive victory over Jon Corzine, but the state’s Democratic legislature is about to force Christie to make good on his veto threat.
The state’s Democrats bookended this week by passing a bill legalizing gay marriage in the Senate on Monday and then in the Assembly yesterday, with Christie promising to veto the bill as early as today. Christie had tried to avoid this by urging the legislature to instead put the choice to voters in a referendum. That would have taken Christie out of the equation and would have likely reduced the odds of it passing:
Voters nationwide have rejected gay marriage in all 31 referendums on the issue. Democrats in New Jersey say marriage is a civil right that shouldn’t be subject to a popular vote. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat, said this week “there’s not a chance in hell” he’d post a referendum bill.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal’s argument wasn’t a defense of gay marriage, per se, but it did find the gay marriage ban passed by California voters was unconstitutional. Law Professor William Jacobson explains the Court’s decision was based on the prior right to same-sex marriage in the state, and its opinion that there wasn’t a compelling state interest in outlawing it:
The Court essentially used a bootstrap argument — that since there was a prior right to same-sex marriage (based on a California Supreme Court decision which gave rise to Prop. 8 ) — the taking away of that right without justification violated the 14th Amendment. Judge N.R. Smith filed a 39-page dissent from this finding.
The Court also held that (i) the supporters of Prop. 8 did have standing to defend the law, deferring to the Certified Opinion of the California Supreme Court, and (ii) trial court Judge Walker did not have to recuse himself based on his own longterm same-sex relationship. These two findings were unanimous.
This year’s presidential campaign is a reminder that most members of the press, and almost everyone on the left, view social conservatives through the prism of two issues–abortion and gay marriage. (When possible, the burning national issue of whether states should be allowed to ban contraception is thrown in as well, as we saw during this weekend’s debates.) The narrative that’s been affixed is a simple one: those who oppose the right to an abortion and gay marriage are almost by definition unenlightened and/or bigoted. It doesn’t matter that most people who are traditionalists are none of these things. Nor does it matter that there are nuances and shades of gray in most people’s views on both issues (mine included). The subtleties get thrown aside in an effort to put people in neat little boxes. There are the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.
This has important implications for our national life, including this one: more than ever before the champions of cultural conservatism need to be people who embody grace, who can articulate the moral good in a way that is non-censorious, and who can speak to these issues with honesty, fairness, and sympathy. They have to possess the ability to place social concerns in a larger frame. And importantly, they – indeed, all of us – need to resist the temptation to speak as if these issues are morally and socially uncomplicated. There is a good deal more ambiguity on these matters than either party platform allows for.
Rick Santorum has suddenly slipped back down to fourth place in New Hampshire, after comments he made about gay marriage leading to polygamy, according to a Suffolk University poll. The pollster cites Santorum’s drop in support among independents and young voters as the reason for his backslide:
Romney leads with 39%, followed by Ron Paul at 17%, Newt Gingrich at 10%, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman tied at 9%, and Rick Perry at 1%.
Key finding: “Santorum came under scrutiny at a campaign stop in Concord, N.H. earlier this week when he compared gay marriage to polygamy and admitted he did not know his medical marijuana laws very well. He was jeered for those answers by a predominately student audience. Overnight, his support dropped from 6 percent to 3 percent among undeclared (Independents) and also dropped from 9 percent to 2 percent among voters ages 18-34 years.”
First, we don’t know for sure whether the abrupt drop in support was based on Santorum’s gay marriage comments, but as the Suffolk poll points out, the timing seems to correspond with the polling. New Hampshire primary voters are expected to be more apathetic on social issues (outside of gun control) than Iowa caucus-goers. But if vocal opposition to gay marriage can now actually hurt Republican candidates with New Hampshire primary voters, then what does that say about the future of this issue?
Yesterday, Rick Santorum was jeered when he told a crowd of college students in Concord, New Hampshire, that legalizing gay marriage was no different from legalizing polygamy. The exchange brought into focus the former Pennsylvanian senator’s strength of convictions and solid powers of reasoning. But it also illustrated why his social conservative views that were so helpful to his solid performance in the Iowa caucuses may be a liability in a general election.
In the course of a question-and-answer session with students at New England College, Santorum asked a student who criticized his opposition to gay marriage if it was okay for two consenting adults of the same sex to marry, why not three or five? The students didn’t seem willing to concede the logic of his reasoning, but even if he’s right, given the sea change in mainstream America about gay rights, Santorum was making a stronger argument for legalizing polygamy than banning gay marriage.
The California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a statutory ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. Barack Obama does not favor gay marriage, so he issued a nonresponsive statement saying all sorts of nice things without saying he liked the idea of gay marriage. He was, of course, silent on the notion that clever judges could trump the will of the elected legislature.
John McCain does not favor a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage, so his response was not everything social conservatives would have liked. But he was smart enough to see the real issue here: judicial activism. His campaign released a statement saying: “John McCain supports the right of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution sanctioning the union between a man and a woman, just as he did in his home state of Arizona. John McCain doesn’t believe judges should be making these decisions.”
What does this mean? It means there will be an initiative on the California ballot in November seeking to amend the state constitution and ban gay marriage. Hmmm. Didn’t something similar happen in Ohio in 2004? But before conservatives get too excited about flipping California from Blue to Red, they should keep in mind that California isn’t Ohio.
That said, I still think this matters. Any development connecting activist courts and results that offend social conservative and many independent voters is going to hurt Obama. McCain’s view is that activist judges make bad law and will impose results most Americans don’t like. Obama would rather not have too many specific examples of social policy by judicial fiat and keep the discussion of the courts on a lofty and vague basis.
The conservative base may not be too thrilled with McCain’s talk about global warming or with his emphasis on bipartisanism, but they understand that their goals are threatened by a liberal judiciary. Events like this help McCain calm frayed nerves on the Right and give conservatives a reason to turn out in November. So bottom line: this is bad for Obama and good for McCain.